Two out of three of these factors make an outing a success in my book: good weather, good ski conditions, good company.
Only the snow conditions were lackluster a few days ago when my friend and I cross-country skied in the warm sun to the charming Jeff View Shelter, which offers knock-out mountain views.
Several times, my companion, Casey Osborne-Rodhouse, said something along the lines of: “We should have brought snowshoes."
It was that kind of day. With recent freeze-thaw cycles, the ungroomed trail was lumpy, hard and slick. The one time we took off our skis to walk down a sketchy, steep incline, our boots punched ankle-deep through the crust, making a normal walk in the snow a little tentative.
But snow conditions can change overnight, and the scenery in the Three Creek Lake area is outstanding so long as the clouds don't obscure the view.
My goal had been to explore the Three Creek Lake nordic trails, a group of loop trails near Three Creek Lake. Still an easy day trip, the trails are a little farther away than all those along the Cascade Lakes Highway, which makes for a much-less crowded scene.
From downtown Sisters, the trailhead is 11 miles up Forest Road 16, starting at the Upper Three Creek Sno-park (see “If you go"). The final miles of Forest Road 16 are steep and narrow, but were passable for my low-clearance, all-wheel-drive Subaru a few days ago. The road is not always plowed all the way to the upper sno-park, in which case a skier would have to start two miles sooner, from the Lower Three Creek Sno-park, and ski up the road before getting to the trailhead.
The Three Creek Lake Trail starts at a gate, heads away from the road, and provides access to several loop options that are well-marked at trail intersections. Skiers (or snowshoers) can venture anywhere between three and 12 miles when all the nordic trails are open. A couple of the trails are off limits at the moment, part of a closure to address erosion and safety concerns following the Pole Creek Fire last summer. There are still plenty of miles to explore.
My friend and I started skiing at the Upper Three Creek Sno-park and stayed on the Three Creek Lake Trail for 2¼ miles to the Jeff View Shelter. The outing started with a blast of uphill, and then the trail became a more gradual ascent to the shelter.
We passed through sections of charred black trees with orange needles clinging to their branches, a poignant visual contrast to the white snow, as well as verdant mixed conifers that emitted scents of pine, evoking nostalgia of so many alpine experiences. Sneak peeks of snowy Cascade mountains flashed frequently from between the trees.
We stopped at the Jeff View shelter, snacked on olives and cheese, took some pictures. We soaked up the warmth of the sun and savored the mountain views that stretched from South Sister to Mount Jefferson. Chickadees and nuthatches chirped and fluttered about.
As lovely as it was, we decided to quit while we were ahead. The skiing wasn't that great and we had been dreading the descent since we started.
The ski down was a fast, somewhat tense snowplow experience. I'm not complaining. The sunshine and companionship and views made it all worth it. Osborne-Rodhouse and I both want to go back after it snows a little more and ski farther. (The trails lead to Three Creek Lake, which is nestled under the picturesque Tam McArthur Rim.) So take what you can get. If the sun is shining, the scenery is unbeatable. Consider throwing in snowshoes, just in case. If the snow is falling, the trails will be fun for skiing. If all else fails, take a good friend and the rest doesn't matter.